When your life falls apart, what do you do? If you’re Antony Bartlett, you transform your master bedroom into Topanga’s Littlest Theater. That’s what you do, and here, there’s magic afoot.
In an eleven-by-eleven-foot room, Antony Bartlett built a two-foot-wide stage along one wall that barely accommodates two humans and a microphone. A big-screen TV, if not used in performance, hides behind a black scrim and a red velvet curtain (of course) that Bartlett found on Craig’s List. An embroidered red valence sports the homemade Topanga’s Littlest Theatre logo set in walnut wood (purchased at the Topanga Swap Meet) and centered at the top to form the impressive proscenium arch. Like the Wizard of Oz, the lighting board controls stage lights and myriad effects at the push of a button. A fog machine produces one of Bartlett’s favorite effects and no show seems to start without it.
For seating, Bartlett installed three faded red velvet theater seats from Winchester Theatre Royal in England.
“Twenty years ago,” he said, “I was on a tour of Jane Austen’s Emma, playing Frank Churchill, and the theater had just been refurbished. I bought the seats for 50 pounds from my landlady, who had inherited them.”
The rest of the seating comprises a sofa, poofy hassocks, and the floor to provide additional cheek-by-jowl seating for about 20 people. For Standing Room Only, there is a window designated for “the groundlings” who will stand outside and watch the performance from there.
The only thing left to do was to create the magic.
THE ROYAL OPENING
In December 2018, to kick off the proceedings, Bartlett invited all his friends and neighbors to attend the prestigious “Royal Opening of Topanga’s Littlest Theater.” As luck would have it, his long-time friend Charlie [aka the 19th Earl of Devon, Charles Peregrine Courtenay], and wife, AJ Langer aka The Countess, were on a short trip to Topanga for Christmas. Bartlett asked if they would open Topanga’s Littlest Theatre. Charlie accepted the invitation.
“Charlie is a Platangenet, so we had actual royalty opening the space,” Bartlett said. “I bought a ribbon that I tied across the stage and with great fanfare, The Countess cut it with Topanga’s Littlest Scissors.
As long-time Topangans, Charlie and AJ thought it fitting to read a poem written by “Dan, The Poet” (Daniel Kleiss), who lived (and died) under the bridge near Topanga Creek Market. He was known to most locals who frequented the market because he would sit outside the door and recite his poems to all who passed by.
After the royal opening, the lights came up on Act I. Mariana and Sean from the Riley Family Circus entertained the crowd with joyful songs about love. Act II belonged to singer/songwriter, Tim O’Gara, a local musician whose beautiful lyrics about Topanga produced many a happy tear in the darkened crowd. His lyrics rang from the stage and into the night. (See @topangalittlesttheater on Instagram for a short snippet of his performance.)
Topanga is my refuge / She is my safety / She is my help/
And I do love this Crooked Canyon like I love nobody else.
At intermission, the crowd were then fed leek and fennel soup with a big hunk of sourdough loaf from Topanga Gourmet, and some pastries the Bartlett children baked for the event. Steve Sas, a local Topanga artist (sasart.com), talked about his art that was exhibited outside the theater.
The final act was performed by Chris Murphy on mandolin and Andreas Geck on double bass, The Sora Nova Band—now the resident band for the theater. The evening ended with everyone dancing on chairs and around the stage, hands in the air, exulting in a euphoric moment of community and connection.
BHUTAN IN SPRING
Excited by the success of the opening night, Bartlett zealously set about to create his next production. The initial inspiration for his next show, Kyoto in Spring, came from a nine-month voyage around the world with his family. However, his 12-year-old son reminded him the family preferred Bhutan over Japan, so he changed the show to Bhutan in Spring. The trip to Bhutan included a hike up a mountain to the Tiger’s Nest monastery, a temple built into a cliff, 10,000 feet above sea level.
Part of the set (stage right) included an enlarged photo of the temple (thanks to FedEx Kinkos on Ventura) and the centerpiece was to be a theatrical cherry blossom tree, which Bartlett began by conscripting a visiting friend, Chris Morasky, and together, they harvested a dead branch from a tree in the state park behind his house. It was quite large. Would it fit in the theatre? Of course! They shoved it through the groundlings window, secured it stage left, then gathered more friends and Bartlett’s two children for a cherry blossom-making marathon.
“It took seven to eight minutes to make each blossom,” Bartlett said. “They were made with pink tissue paper, dipped in bleach, then twisted into individual flowers. All learned from a YouTube video. Any unsuspecting visitors were press-ganged into producing countless blossoms. It took 80 hours of labor.”
Bartlett then decided the theater needed a sponsor. He asked who else but Dorgi Jamtsho, the most senior member of the Bhutanese community in the U.S., and owner of Topanga’s own Bhutan Shop. He gladly opened his purse to sponsor the soiree for a token $1 and Bhutan in Spring was on the boards for TLT’s debut on the evening of March 2, 2019.
The night of the show, Bartlett’s eight-year-old daughter, Frankie, dressed in pink, greeted guests at the door and took their coats. Later, she and her 12-year-old brother, Will, became ushers and made sure guests would not prematurely peek into the theater as they enjoyed Bhutan’s main dish of Chili Cheese, brought by Dorgi.
Soon, Topanga’s Littlest Interval Bell rang out (really, a delicate tinkle), and it was Showtime!
An open mic session ensued with local, Del Mar Lathers leading off with a Keats poem he had memorized on a 45-day hike. That was followed by local musicians Mia and Jonah playing haunting love songs on an acoustic guitar and a musical saw played with a violin bow.
Finally, “The Regulars,” a local band led by Brendon O’Halloran, Mimosa Café owner Claire Denis’ husband, played and the evening was on.
During a short intermission, local artist, Matt Dusig, exhibited his equine-inspired photographs and drone shots of the Mexican coastline, the first in a tradition that has now become a TLT rotating exhibit of local artists. Dusig explained how Bartlett gently prodded him into presenting his work to the public for the first time and how grateful he was that he did.
After all the entertainment, the curtains in front of the big TV were drawn and in a Facebook post Bartlett described the evening’s coup de théâtre: “This was the moment when my friend and Tiger’s Nest guide, @sonamsnm, standing on the steps to the actual Tiger’s Nest, appeared on a live WhatsApp call from Bhutan in front of a packed audience in #topanga,” Bartlett wrote.
“I mean, seriously, it could not have been a more wonderful connection to a magical country. I said, ‘Thanks @sonamsnm for agreeing to speak to us all and timing your hike so perfectly.’ It really was jaw-dropping to see the temple live and everyone could not believe their eyes. What a moment.” (#tigersnest #tigersnestmonastery #bhutan #latheater #latheatre).”
THE PATH FORWARD
As the hurt and anger of a broken relationship starts to dissipate, Bartlett continues running his company, a successful online meal planning business called realplans.com, indulges his passion for classic cars with like-minded friends, and continues his Tai Chi practice of 16 years, which he teaches to Topangans most mornings in his house.
At a subsequent soiree, Bartlett invited Jean Colonomos, local poet and published playwright, to gather a number of poets to read their works in the theatre, and another magical evening of poetry and music ensued. Tim O’Gara played music and more delicious food was offered.
At the end of the evening, as guests were starting to leave, Bartlett spontaneously strode to the grand piano in the middle of the house, asking assembled friends if they wanted to hear a piece of music he composed. He played a moving piano concerto, capturing the deep despair and anger of the breakup, and the ongoing struggle to regain balance and forge a new path. Spellbound, the audience listened to the intimate outpouring of a man’s transformation.
Following Poetry Night, Bartlett wrote on Facebook: “Hidden away in @topangacanyon there is a theatre so special that when you visit, it feels like you have been transported to a magical faraway place. It is a place where minstrels play music, poetry is spoken, and art is displayed.
“Not to mention a damn fine soup followed by sugary homemade delights,” he added. “Thank you to everyone who attended. It was a really special night.” (#latheatre #latheater #secretsalon #lamusicscene #topanga #topangacanyon).
Topanga has always been a hotbed for artists, musicians, and community events. Topanga’s Littlest Theatre is a newly discovered gem set well in the tradition.
“Not only is this an attempt to gather friends and foster community, but it is to inspire others to do the same and to connect our human selves together,” Bartlett said. “It is in these small gestures, these small nodes where community exists that, when strung together, they create layers of relationships, friendships, and goodwill that extend far beyond its center. You will never know the extent to which your waves fan out.”
PARIS BY NIGHT
The next show Paris by Night, on Saturday, October 5, is sponsored (for $2) by Claire Denis and will feature Bartlett’s hand-built facsimile of the Eiffel Tower—a towering labor of love, math, and recycled materials—and a Parisian street lamp framing the stage. The Moulin Rouge windmill bears down from the ceiling and a trio of Toulouse Lautrec’s most famous paintings, reproduced by talented friends, look down from above the door.
The invitation specified that it is mandatory for guests to wear only horizontal-striped clothing a la mode francais, with the threat of being sent to the guillotine if they don’t comply. Those who survive will undoubtedly experience another magical event at Topanga’s Littlest Theater.
Guests are limited because the theater resides on one of Topanga’s littlest, ridiculously narrow, winding, downhill streets that ends in a cul de sac with impossible parking and neighbors to consider. But if you wish to attend a show and are willing to park your car far away, private message Bartlett on Instagram (@topangaslittlesttheater) and he will accommodate where possible.
Bartlett continues to live every minute of every day, “feeling blessed for all the lessons learnt so far.” He says his outpouring of creative energy has returned to him a hundred-fold in the form of love and gratitude from his growing circle of friends.
“Topanga’s Littlest Theater represents a metamorphosis,” he says, “an opening chapter to new possibilities. It is also another example of how magical it is to live in Topanga Canyon.”
Long live Topanga’s Littlest Theater!